26. Conversion


CONVERSION, conversio, is that act through which the Holy Ghost converts the understanding, the emotions, and especially the will of the awakened shiner, resulting in a self-determination of the will, which takes the form of contrition and faith. The definition of conversion is dependent upon whether it is considered in the broad sense, the special sense, or the most special sense. In the broad sense conversion embraces all the acts of grace, while in the most special sense it embraces only contrition. We here employ the expression conversion in the special sense, as embracing contrition and faith, or poenitentia. Instead of contrition repentance is mostly used.


Conversion has both a human and a divine side. As experienced in the heart of the sinner, conversion is instantaneous as to the ultimate act, but successive as to the preparatory acts in reaching its object, with certain factors active.


The following terms are used to distinguish between the different points of view from which conversion may be considered: 1) Conversio transitiva, because the converting activity passes from God to another subject. This transitive side is active as proceeding from the Holy Spirit, and passive by reason of the seat of excitation in the sinner, and because he is the object of the preparatory and operating grace. 2) Conversio intransitiva, poenitentia or repentance. By this is meant the changed condition of the heart as affecting the intellect, the emotions and the will. Many passages in Scripture, not to speak of the majority of instances bearing on the subject, present conversion from the intransitive standpoint as consisting in repentance. Compare Mai. 3:7; Matt. 13: 14, 15; Acts 3: 18; 2 Cor. 3: 16. Also cf. Jer. 31: 18: “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned.” When reference is made to the human activity, it it not the natural power of man that is implied. The following Latin sentence of the Dogmaticians applies in this connection: se convertit veribus non nativis, sed dativis.


CHEMNITZ says that conversion has its starting points, its progress or degrees of development, through which it is completed in great weakness. BAIER uses the following division: 1) terminus a quo formalis is sin, both habitual and actual; 2) terminus a quo objectivus consists of those things that are the objects of actual sins, especially those toward which the sinner feels a peculiar inclination, such as secret or bosom sins. Conversion must therefore proceed from the root of evil and include the whole gamut of sin. Inasmuch as secret sins are especially vulnerable points, therefore conversion must also include an attack upon these.


The factors in conversion are the Word and the Holy Ghost. There are not three factors, as the Synergists assert. The Holy Ghost works through the means of grace. Man must therefore make use of these means. He is able to read and to hear the Word of God, but will receive no blessing to be converted by his own power. For this reason the Formula of Concord rejects the opinions of the Enthusiasts and Epicureans, who belittle the means of grace and expect that God shall make forceful intervention and convert man against his will, thereby removing all human responsibility. In this connection we would present the heretical tendencies which the Formula of Concord rejects: 1) The doctrine of the Stoics and the Manichaeans, which declares that everything happens through necessity, so that man possesses no freedom. 2) The Pelagian view, which says that man is capable of converting himself with his own power. 3) The Semi-Pelagian view, which teaches that man himself is capable of beginning the work of conversion, but by reason of human weakness the Holy Ghost must continue the work. 4) The position of the Synergists, which holds that God begins the work of conversion, but that man is thereafter capable in his own power, which is weak, to co-operate in and continue that work. 5) The heresy of the Flacians, which teaches that in conversion God entirely outroots the substance and essence of the old Adam. 6) The further doctrine of the Flacians, that man even after his conversion withstands the Holy Spirit, so that no co-operation takes place with the spiritual powers imparted by the Holy Ghost. 7) The teaching of the popes and monks, that the regenerated man is fully capable of completely fulfilling the Law of God, which also constitutes the righteousness of man, and through which he merits eternal life. Such expressions as those of Chrysostom and Basil here quoted are also rejected: “God draws but him who wills; if only you will, God will meet you beforehand.”

The Lutheran Confession sets forth the means of grace and the activity of the Holy Ghost through these. Through grace therefore the will of man is made free, but inasmuch as man is incapable of doing anything in his own power, therefore the natural human will is not a factor in conversion. Man could not possess himself in a state of passivity, except as the Holy Ghost works through His prevenient grace. The responsibility of man arises when he does not permit the Holy Spirit to perform this work, but withstands the Spirit and neglects to use the Word of God. For this reason the Formula of Concord says: “And in this respect it might well be said that man is not a stone or block. For a stone or block does not resist that which moves it, and does not understand and is not sensible of what is being done with it, as a man, as long as he is not converted, with his will resists God the Lord. And it is nevertheless true that a man before his conversion is still a rational creature, having an understanding and will, yet not an understanding with respect to divine things, or a will to will something good and salutary. Yet he can do nothing whatever for his conversion (as has also been said often above) , and is in this respect much worse than a stone and block; for he resists the Word and will of God, until God awakens him from the death of sin, enlightens and renews him.” The Formula of Concord therefore treats of the utter inability of the natural man. In considering the natural state of man, and realizing that it is only the grace of God that can set at liberty the will of man, we comprehend the reason why there are but two factors in conversion, as has been stated. Cf. §15, 4, and §7, 2.


Finis conversionis is twofold: 1) finis formalis is faith in Christ; 2) finis objectivus is God. Inasmuch as conversion consists in contrition and faith, therefore conversion is completed through faith. Through faith man has returned to God. The converted man lives in daily contrition and faith, which is the same as daily repentance. The following Scripture passages may be quoted: “Repent ye” (Acts 2: 38); “Believe on the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16: 31); “For he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him” (Heb. 11:6); “I will arise and go to my father, and say unto him. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight” (Luke 15: 18); “And he arose, and came to his father” (Luke 15: 20).


Contrition is the first element in conversio intransitiva or poenitentia. The first contrition is called the great contrition or poenitentia magna, the renewed contrition of a fallen Christian is called poenitentia iterata, while the daily contrition of a Christian is called poenitentia stantium. Strictly speaking, however, contrition is the first element in poenitentia or repentance. We define contrition as follows: CONTRITION is that change of mind or heart in man in relation to sin, made known through the illumination by the Law, which manifests itself in deep sorrow and fear of conscience because of sin together with a detestation of sin and a faithful endeavor to be rid of it.

The Greek word that has been rendered with “repentance” is μετάνοια and means really change of mind or heart. The same word seems also to be used in the sense of contrition. Compare Mark 1: 15: “Repent ye, and believe in the gospel.” In this passage μετάνεῖτε might be translated “be contrite” or “be changed in mind,” followed as it is by the admonition to believe, which is a component part of the concept repentance. Compare, for example. Acts 2: 38 and 2 Cor. 7: 10. The verb that is used for contrition is μεταμέλομαι, but the substantive μεταμέλεια does not occur in the New Testament. Μετάνοια is used to express both contrition and repentance. 2 Cor. 7: 10 speaks of repentance which bringeth no regret.


According to GERHARD the partes contritionis are the following: 1) vera peccati agnitio, or a true knowledge of sin; 2) sensus irae divinae adversus peccata, or the consciousness of the wrath of God against sin; 3) conscientiae angores et pavores, or the anguish and terror of the conscience; 4) vera coram Deo humiliatio, or true humility before God; 5) ingenua peccati confessio, or a candid confession of sin; 6) serium peccati odium ac detestatio, or an earnest hatred and detestation of sin.

The Confessions and the old Dogmaticians emphasize terrores conscientiae. In the Augsburg Confession, Article XII, we read: “Now repentance consists properly of two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge. The terror of the conscience through the knowledge of sin,” etc. The terror of the conscience may vary in degree, but all contrite souls experience this terror on different occasions. The anguish of heart because of sin may vary in accordance with many circumstances, both internal and external, but every one must know the nature of sin and its effects. This internal sorrow may not always manifest itself in strong crying, or in a manner that may be observed by others, but is nevertheless intensive. The external manifestation varies with the personal temperament and other influences. He that loudly laments may suffer less than the contrite sinner who quietly experiences the sorrow that is of the godly sort. It may often prove true that loud crying and lamentation and violent gesticulation indicate merely aroused emotions but no profound contrition, as is often the case at pre-arranged “revival meetings.” It may not be possible, indeed, to determine theoretically the decisive and unfailing characteristics by which to gauge the experience of the contrite sinner, but the above named parts make clear the principal features.

The marks of true contrition may also be presented as follows: 1) Interna: a) knowledge of sin and the consciousness of God’s wrath on account of sin; b) sorrow and anguish of conscience; c) detestation of sin and therefore an internal resolution to forsake sin; d) yearning for redemption. 2) Externa: a) earnest confession of sin before God and in certain cases before a minister of the Word or some other Christian; b) the diligent use of the Word; c) the continued works of grace; d) the fruits of contrition in the newness of life.

The following Scripture passages may be quoted: “For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51: 3); “There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine indignation; neither is there any health in my bones because of my sin” (Ps. 38: 3); “Have mercy upon me, O Jehovah; for I am withered away: my soul is sore troubled” (Ps. 6: 2, 3); “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall exalt you” (James 4: 10); “I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah” (Ps. 32: 5); “What I hate, that I do” (Rom. 7: 15); “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18: 13). In proof of the fact that contrition implies a new relationship the following may be cited: “If I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19: 8). Such a restitution proves the genuineness of contrition, provided that other characteristics are present.


Objectum contritionis is sin. The objects of contrition are sins, both habitual and actual sins, especially secret or bosom sins. Certain sins may manifest themselves more than others, but the contrite sinner grieves over his entire sinful state. Contrition may often begin on account of one individual sin, but through the activity of the Spirit the knowledge of one sin leads to the knowledge of others, at first more grievous and palpable sins, afterwards less palpable; at first external sins, then internal, the conscience becoming more sensitive all the while. The sorrow becomes all the deeper as man realizes his own inability to deliver himself from sin, and that his contrition is not as profound as it ought to be, wherefore he laments because of his impenitence. In a measure his experience becomes like unto that described in Rom. 7: 7–14. The object of contrition is therefore not the punishment of sin, so as to cause grief only on account of the effects of sin; the penitent grieves over sin itself as sin against God.


Effectus contritionis comprises the following parts: 1) more profound knowledge of the demands of the Law; 2) a genuine consciousness of sin; 3) the experience of inability to save oneself; 4) the elimination of hindrances in the way of repentance.

The transition from contrition to faith is a critical period in the experience of the awakened and contrite soul, for he stands in danger either of reverting to the natural state or of entering into a state of bondage under the Law, But where the spiritual experience is normal, there the contrite sinner becomes poor in spirit. The storm clouds of the Law may threaten overhead, but through the knowledge of the Gospel the clouds are dispersed. Faith is already present as a real possibility. A sense of yearning possesses the soul. Faith reveals itself first in seeking and longing. We find a Biblical expression of the effect of contrition in the words of Paul in 2 Cor. 7: 10: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation.”


The immediate end of contrition or penitence is faith, which is the second part of conversion. Faith may be defined as follows: FIDES is that gracious act of the Holy Ghost whereby the contrite sinner, in process of conversion, in a living way knows, with his whole heart assents to, and with childlike trust apprehends the saving grace of God, in order that he may he justified and eternally saved for Christ’s sake. 

The Greek word for faith is πίστις. In Heb. 11:1 faith is defined as follows: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” The word translated assurance is in the Greek ὑπόστασις, which means foundation, substratum, substance, the essence of a thing, and therefore denotes the unshakable reliance of the heart, the assurance of building on a sure foundation. Faith is assurance or confidence. Compare 2 Cor. 3: 4 and Eph. 3: 12. The latter passage also speaks of boldness in confidence. Faith is also a certain and unmovable conviction. Compare Rom. 4: 21; Col. 2: 2, and Heb. 10: 22.

It is God that works faith through the means of grace. Causa efficiens principalis is the Triune God, causa impulsiva interna is the goodness of God, causa impulsiva externa is the merit of Christ, and causa instumentalis is the Word, or Baptism, or the means of grace in general.


Partes fidei are: 1) Notitia, or knowledge. The knowledge of faith is not so much implicita, it is principally explicita. When faith is considered as a fides implicita, it denotes simply an historic faith, so that without examination man believes what the Church teaches. On the other hand, the knowledge which is characteristic of fides explicita denotes that which is believed, that which is known in a distinctive sense, so that it can be distinguished from other objects, even though it cannot be clearly or completely comprehended. Among Scripture passages may be cited: “And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God” (John 6: 69; cf. 17: 3; Luke 1: 77; John 14: 10). 2) Assensus, or assent. This assensus is twofold: a) generalis, or a general assent, when the acknowledgment is made that the promises of God and the merit of Christ are true; b) specialis, or an assent that implies that the contrite person considers that these promises and this merit are true for him personally. This assent includes a conviction of things not seen. Compare Heb. 11: 1; also 1 Tim. 1: 15, which sets forth both assensus generalis et specialis. Cf. also John 14: 11. 3) Fiducia, or confidence. Fiducia is the childlike trust of the will in Christ and therefore implies the personal application and appropriation of the Gospel promises and the merit of Christ. In a higher degree it is the yearning of the faith of repentance, indeed, it is the confident assurance of the heart. Among Scripture passages may be mentioned: “And being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4: 21); “In fulness of faith” (Heb. 10: 22); “Confidence” (2 Cor. 3: 4; cf. Eph. 3: 12, etc.). Of course, confidence has its varying degrees, so that some can believe with greater trustfulness than others. Compare John 14: 12; 17: 8; 1 John 3: 21; Heb. 11: 1, etc.

The three elements of faith are set forth in John 14: 10–12. Notitia is presented in the tenth verse, assensus in the eleventh and fiducia in the twelfth verse. The three elements are also expressed in the following Latin phrases: Credere Deum, which means faith in the existence of God and the knowledge of God in general, credere Deo, which denotes faith in the Word and promises of God, credere in Deum, which signifies the inmost essence of faith or confidence. Only a Christian has faith in the last-named sense, but in adults this includes also the first and second.


The character of faith is determined through divisions which at the same time constitute attributes. These attributes describe more clearly the essense and degree of faith. The following are the most common: 1) fides generalis, or a general faith in the truth of the Word of God; 2) specialis, or the personal confidence of the contrite sinner in the gracious promises of God; 3) apprehensiva et justificans is faith as apprehending the merit of Christ, thus appropriating the grace of forgiveness; 4) reflexa et discursiva is the faith of the converted sinner, who knows that he believes, so that with childlike fear he is enabled to say with Paul: “I know him whom I have believed”; 5) fides directa is a faith like the faith of small children, wrought at their Baptism; 6) infirma, or a weak faith, which is nevertheless a true faith; 7) firma, or a strong faith.

When repentance has been completed, i. e., the so-called great repentance, then yearning faith enters into the heart of the contrite sinner, resulting in the conviction of faith, the consecration of the will and the confident assurance of faith. But this special and reflexive faith is not always firm, but often infirm. The converted sinner, however, is always inclined toward the object of his faith. This experience is closely connected with the effect of faith.

In distinguishing between reflex or discursive and direct faith we must consider that the first kindling of faith is direct faith both in children and grown persons. The Holy Spirit works faith by the means of grace, in children by Baptism, as before stated. The instrumental cause of faith is the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, but the children cannot understandingly hear the Word. Their faith also becomes discursive later on. The direct faith of a child is nevertheless a true faith, although it is embryonic in its character. The acorn contains the entire oak. Just as God created a cell, a seed or an acorn, the Holy Spirit works faith in a child by Baptism, and this faith saves just as does the discursive faith. The saving faith does not depend upon our understanding and our own power, but upon the power of God. — Among other attributes we mention implicit, explicit, and crude, (fides informis), and faith energized or determined by love. The implicit faith is the same as notitia implicita which implies an acceptance of what is known and many particulars which are not known. When a member of the Church accepts the authority of the Church, such a person believes what the Church has taught, teaches and will teach. The explicit faith is like notitia explicita. Compare above. The crude faith is an assent to the Church doctrine and is in fact the same as a historical faith. But the Augsburg Confession says: “Faith does not signify merely the knowledge of the history.” The scholastic ‘faith energized by love’ is a Roman Catholic doctrine. This term implies that faith justifies by the virtue of love pervading it. But the correct doctrine is that we are justified not on account of our faith, nor on account of our love, but through faith on account of the merits of Christ. The good works follow faith as fruits of faith. Compare the following paragraph.


Effectus fidei is righteousness and the new life, since faith implies both vis receptiva and vis operativa. It is vis receptiva as a justifying faith and vis operativa as a renewing and sanctifying faith. Faith is indeed the beginning of a new life, but the character of faith is receptive. Operative faith is therefore not conceived of as being determined by love, as the Catholic Church speaks of a fides caritate formata. Love is a fruit of faith; love is not operative through faith, but faith through love. GEZ. VON SCHEELE says in this connection: “In accordance with the direction of the Word of God the Lutheran Church combines in indissoluble union true faith and true love, but instead of the fides caritate formata of the Catholic Church, she sets forth a caritas fide formata in the certain conviction that no true love can be brought about except through union with Christ by faith; only as love enters the heart through justifying faith is it enabled to take form in the deeds of Christian love.”

Finis fidei is in the first place justification and then new relationship as the children of God, followed by renovation and finally eternal salvation. The doctrine of faith stands in the most intimate relationship to the doctrine of justification.


The Apostolic Church set forth the great importance of contrition as the first element in conversion. Great emphasis was also laid on contritio iterata, especially in connection with church discipline. When a person had fallen into sin and become the object of church discipline it was not sufficient for his reinstatement that he manifested a contrite spirit, his penance must include a certain graduated order of procedure before restoration could be accomplished. This order of procedure included the following four stages: Fletus, or standing at the church doors to make supplication for restoration; auditio, in which the penitents were admitted again to the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon; genuflexio, in which they were admitted into the nave of the church to kneel at prayer; consistentia, or in standing posture to take part with the congregation in the whole of the public services. The conception of faith was not so profound during the Apologetic and Polemical periods. The Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of contrition and faith was developed during the early Scholastic period. It took the position that poenitentia or repentance consisted of the following parts: 1) Penitence, which is either attritio, imperfect penitence, which arises through the fear of punishment, or contritio, perfect penitence; 2) private confession before the priest; 3) satisfactions. Faith was conceived of as fides informis and formata. The Lutheran Confessions set forth contrition as the first part of conversion. Contrition is the sorrow of the heart and the terror of the conscience brought about by the knowledge of sin. Faith is conceived of as being apprehensive, and one of its most important characteristics is said to be fiducia in voluntate. The Reformed Church does not have the profound conception of the knowledge of sin which is characteristic of the Lutheran Church. The condition of guilt before God is not sufficiently emphasized, hence the reconciliation is viewed first and foremost as a redemption. The doctrine of penitence is affected to some extent by this view, although the Reformed Church acknowledges the importance of true contrition. However, the state of the emotions often forms the gauge by which to judge the genuineness of contrition. The Lutheran Church lays the greatest stress on the sorrow of the heart and the fear of conscience as a result of the profound consciousness of sin. The knowledge of sin must be such that the ensuing contrition will affect the will. The conception of faith held by the Reformed Church is more nearly related to that of the Catholic Church than the Lutheran. The apprehensive character of faith is not sufficiently emphasized; rather faith is presented as a principle of life. In some manner faith is determined by something within man. The conception of faith occupies a more prominent position than the doctrine of justification. We pass on now to the presentation of more detailed remarks concerning the doctrine of repentance during the leading periods.

CLEMENT OF ROME emphasizes the justifying character of faith, but declares, however, that love is a means to the forgiveness of sins. IGNATIUS says that faith is the beginning of life and love the goal. JUSTIN MARTYR speaks of faith in connection with the blotting out of sin. IRNAEUS presents faith and obedience as being necessary for salvation. TERTULLIAN, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA and CYPRIAN indeed present faith, but they especially emphasize the necessity of penance for sins committed after Baptism. Origen lays great stress on the degree of contrition and teaches that minor sins may be reconciled through penances. He expresses himself very vaguely concerning faith. 

AUGUSTINE considered that it was not proper to distinguish between sins and emphasized penance in relation to God. He says that faith is active through love and is determined by love. His doctrine of faith was expressed in the terms fides historica et formata. Penance was necessary for the grosser sins committed after Baptism. JOHN OF DAMASCUS speaks of a twofold faith, being in the first place an assensus and then fiducia. 

ANSELM regarded faith as the acceptation of the objective teachings of the Church. Peter Lombard defines faith as fides informis or faith in the teachings of the Church and fides formata, i. e., as determined by love. He also speaks of credere Deum or faith in the existence of God, credere Deo or faith in the truth of the Word of God, and credere in Deum, meaning to love God in faith, which faith is meritorious as one of the Christian graces. Thomas Aquinas also says that fides formata is one of the Christian graces. 

LUTHER conceived of faith as being the true assurance of the heart. Faith embraces Christ as the bridal ring encloses the precious jewel. With regard to contrition the Schmalkald Articles state that it is effected by the Law, that it is not contritio activa, but passiva, excluding all merit. Contrition consists in the broken and contrite heart, the pain of the awakened conscience, the anguish of soul together with the consciousness and fear of impending death. The fear of conscience is therefore emphasized. Repentance must be experienced by every man, while it must embrace everything in life and continue always. In the Confessions the apprehensive character of faith is set forth, while the doctrine of a faith determined by love is rejected. Conversion is said to consist of two parts, namely, contrition and faith. MELANCHTHON divided conversion into two parts, but in the Apology he states that he would interpose no objection if a third part were added, i. e., the fruit of repentance. However, the fruit of repentance is not a part of conversion, but a result. AGRICOLA held a position different from that of the Lutheran Church concerning the place of contrition in the order of salvation. His arrangement of the ordo salutis is as follows: 1) Man experiences the love of God which leads to Christ and the bestowal of His grace; 2) he apprehends this grace and thanks God for it; 3) then follows contrition or repentance; 4) thereafter comes the heart’s confidence toward God and a resolution to sin no more. The Catholics reject the Lutheran doctrine that poenitentia or conversion consists of contrition and faith. They rather consider faith as a presupposition to conversion, which consists of contritio, confessio and satisfactio. The Council of Trent condemns those who say that faith is fiducia. BELLARMIN says that the Catholics differ in three things from the heretics: in the first place concerning the object of justifying faith, because the heretics limit themselves to the promise of a special mercy; in the second place with regard to the seat (sedes) of faith, inasmuch as the heretics say fiducia in voluntate and the Catholics say in intellectu; in the third place concerning the conception itself, since the Catholics say that assensus expresses the content of faith, while the heretics declare it is fiducia. 

The Rationalists, such as WEGSCHEIDER, reject the order of salvation and set forth the power of man to save himself. It is necessary only for the ignorant to believe in a supernatural activity in conversion, since they are incapable of comprehending how God influences causas secundas in accordance with the laws of nature. They reject the Church doctrine of faith and present the so-called intellectual faith. In the main KANT held the same position. He emphasized the freedom of man and the intellectual faith. The Supranaturalists desired to defend the Church doctrine of conversion, but in many respects yielded to the Rationalists. Some said that the work of grace was simply a strengthening of the powers of nature. The mediating theologians did not conceive of faith in its purely receptive character. The modern theologians are divided into two camps, depending upon whether they follow the conservative doctrine of the Church or the mediating theology. THOMASIUS, PHILIPPI and others present the doctrine of the Church, while KAHNIS and others tend toward Synergism. SSCHARTAU in Sweden has especially emphasized the third article of the Creed and in a very detailed manner has developed the doctrine of ordo salutis. NORBECK defines conversion merely as contrition and says that this is conversion in the real sense (strictissime). But he conceives of repentance as consisting of contrition and faith. — Other quotations could be presented to show how Dogmaticians differ in their definitions of repentance, conversion and regeneration. Although the differences may be explained in a satisfactory manner, still it would be well if the terminology and definitions could be made more definite.